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Romney vs. Ryan on How to Handle Critics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Mitt Romney is about to accept his party's presidential nomination in a shower of -- no, not confetti and red-white-and-blue balloons -- but questions about his taxes. Naturally, he complains that all this ginned-up furore over his personal finances is just a distraction from real issues facing the country, mainly the sluggish state of the economy and persistent unemployment. And says he'd really like to get back to talking about substance.

But if these demands that he release more of his tax returns are just a distraction, whose fault is that? Not just the opposition's. The duty of an opposition, after all, is to oppose. And, in this case, to raise every doubt it can about a rival presidential candidate and see if any stick.

There's no vetting process quite as long and thorough as an American presidential campaign. Even if some of the interrogators, like Dirty Harry Reid, the Nevada mudslinger, and the president himself for that matter, haven't exactly raised the level of American politics by trying to turn this year's presidential campaign into an IRS audit.

As tiring and tiresome as it may be, this kind of close inspection, which might even lead to some welcome introspection on a presidential candidate's part, is both necessary and useful. Because you can never tell what it'll turn up. Sometimes it is something substantial. And if such questions are ignored and allowed to fester, they can have devastating repercussions -- repercussions from which a presidential campaign may not recover.

Anybody still remember Tom Eagleton? He was the senator from Missouri whom George McGovern chose as his running mate in 1972 -- briefly. It seems the good senator had neglected to share some details of his medical and mental history with Sen. McGovern, including some electric shock treatments years before.

Those omissions raised questions not so much about his health but his honesty. The poor guy was allowed to twist in the wind for 18 days, then dropped from the ticket. Not asking questions, or rather not answering them fully, can be fatal to a candidate's chances in a national election.

Mitt Romney may say he wants these questions about his taxes to go away, but he's found just the way to keep them simmering. By providing only tidbits of information -- like just a couple of years' worth of his tax returns -- and so whetting the public's appetite for more.

When curiosity about Mr. Romney's financial affairs seems to lag, he revives it by throwing out a little revelation or two. ("I did go back and look at my taxes, and over the past 10 years I never paid less than 13 percent. I think the most recent year is 13.6 percent or something like that....")

Mitt Romney may want to answer these questions about his taxes in the worst way, and sure enough he's found it: Releasing tantalizing hints every now and then while claiming he'll never tell all.

One of Richard Nixon's presidential aides and henchmen back in the '70s -- John Ehrlichman by name -- had a term for this way of releasing information a drop at a time, like the Chinese water torture. He called it the "modified limited hang out," and it didn't work very well back then, either.

Why not steal a march on the opposition and release not just a couple of years of old tax returns, but five or 10 years of them, and be done with it? What could those old records contain worse than what the president's re-election campaign would like all of us to imagine?

The best way for a politician to respond to demands for information from critics is to drown them in data, giving them even more documents than they asked for, leaving them (and the rest of us) more bored than suspicious. Honesty isn't just the best policy for idealistic reasons but for very practical ones. Why not beat the critics to the punch?

Yes, it does take a certain courage, even daring, to bring off that kind of counter-punch. But if there's anything embarrassing in those records, the candidate will find the American people far more forgiving of a politician's mistakes than of his trying to hide them.

Mr. Romney might take his cue from one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, who was not only a fine soldier, daring statesman, immigrant patriot (he was born in the West Indies), brilliant financier (he remains the best secretary of the Treasury the country ever had), and political philosopher but something of a ladies' man.

And when a lady, to use the term loosely, tried to blackmail him in cahoots with her conniving husband, Col. Hamilton faced up to what he had to do. He revealed the affair, its causes and duration and more details than anyone might want to know, in his own newspaper. (Yes, he was a pioneering journalist, too, and a talented pamphleteer, as his essays in the Federalist Papers demonstrate to this day.) The talented Mr. Hamilton would emerge unscathed from this unhappy episode -- thanks in large part to the loyalty and devotion of a loving, and understanding, wife. There were gentlemen in those Federalist days, and ladies, too.

Alexander Hamilton's was the honorable course, if a little belated, and if only one William J. Clinton had followed it, he might have spared himself, his family and his country a good deal of extended embarrassment. Not to mention a presidential impeachment.

Unfortunately, however, Bill Clinton's sense of history, not to mention honor, had some lacunae. So did his much-praised political instincts, which were all wrong in the matter that came to be known as l'affaire Lewinsky. Contrary to the popular impression of how politics should be played, the candid, the honorable, the honest course may prove the politically smart one, too.

Mitt Romney need not look back to the early national period of American history for guidance when it comes to defusing a political issue. He's got a running mate who seems to know just how to handle these matters.

Note how Paul Ryan, who's about to be nominated for vice president of the United States, not only has a fiscal program but a talent for honest confession.

It seems that, in the course of explaining why this administration's economic stimulus didn't stimulate as promised, Congressman Ryan slipped up and told a television interviewer, that, no, he himself had never asked for a hand-out for any businesses in his district as part of the president's stimulus package. Actually, it turns out his office had sent a couple of form letters to the U.S. Energy Department doing just that. And he promptly fessed up.

Those requests from local businesses, Congressman Ryan explained, "were treated as constituent service requests in the same way matters involving Social Security or Veteran Affairs are handled. This is why I didn't recall the letters earlier. But they should have been handled differently, and I take responsibility for that." Mistake confessed, matter closed. It's unlikely we'll hear any more about it. See how simple the honorable course can be?

Mitt Romney should follow Paul Ryan's lead and do the candid thing. Then he can get back to doing what he does best: not just talking about jobs but creating them. And conducting his biggest financial turnaround yet, namely that of the United States of America.

Without distractions.

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